Climbing as High as the World will Let You. The Views From the Summit Ridge of Everest

Hundreds are hopefully summiting Everest safely tonight and over the next few days, surrounded by other climbers, in a year that has so far seen light winds and warm temperatures.

Yet cocooned in down suits, both smothered and saved by their oxygen masks, a climbers vision is tunneled into a single headlamp beam of existence and they will be very much alone.

They may be making a marathon effort, but it is not one they can suddenly drop out of, or decide to not finish.

They must go up as high as the world will let them.

And far more importantly, they must go down.

Everest, South summit, sunrise
The first hint of dawn, from just below the South Summit, Everest. Photo: Robert Anderson

Somewhere up there, in the dark, there is the summit, though at times it may not seem so. And despite the darkness and what feels like an eternal night, the sun will rise and with any luck, the Everest dawn from higher up than most anybody else in the world is, will be glorious.

Everest summit, Makalu
Makalu at dawn, directly East of Everest, with Kanchenjunga in cloud behind. Photo Robert Anderson
Everest, Sunrise
A sign you are really getting somewhere, the shadow of Everest shrinking to the West as the sun rises behind in the East. Photo: Robert Anderson

Ever so slowly the sunlit line of dawn will go from black grey, to grey to a tinge of warming orange. There is no real heat though, only the first register of colour that signals the night won’t really go on forever.

Then the sun finally breaks through, illuminating the earth and all the land below, very far below.

It is so far below the connection back to earth fades and existence makes a climber feel more a part of the sky.

An Everest dawn from the South Summit is singularly the best dawn ever.

You are, after all, looking down on the whole world.

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Dawn from just below the South Summit on Everest, looking East to Makalu and in the far distance, Kanchenjunga. Photo: Robert Anderson

At the South Summit climbers perch atop a pinnacle of ice and the final ridge reveals itself. It is a sky-cutting line of jagged ice and rock cliffs, towering cornices leaning out over Tibet, black rock cliffs dropping off and then disappearing into space into Nepal.

Everest Summit ridge
Not a cornice you want to climb too close too – a few thousand meters of exposure over the Kangshung Face. Photo: Robert Anderson

At the South Summit, climbers drop down into the notch, and scrape across the cliffs, rising and then falling in a traverse to the base of the Hillary Step.

Looking across from the South Summit, over the Hillary Step and on to the summit of Everest. Photo: Robert Anderson

Bridging between the rock and the ice, climbers move up, then step left onto sloping ledges. These lead up and around the corner left, with a few kilometres of the South-west Face dropping straight off under their heels to the tents of Camp 2.

Everest summit ridge, Sibusisu Vilane
On Everest’s Summit Ridge. Sibusisu Vilane on his way to the top, about to become the first Black African to summit Everest. Cocooned in down, isolated and alone, even when others are around you. Photo: David Hamilton

Fluttering above finally, the prayer flags, the five colored wind-horses waving in the snow above, letting climbers know they are finally, almost, nearly there.

The summit is a meter wide and three long, covered in prayer flags. To the North, Tibet extends out over white, ice-encrusted mountains, then brown mountains, and hills, and into the purple plains.

East lays Kanchenjunga, very much in the far distance, Makalu looms a perfect pink granite pyramid just in front, then the long jagged ridge leads down and then up to Lhotse in the South.

Everest Summit, Sibusisu Vilane, Robert Mads Anderson
Sibusisu Vilane, left, and I atop Everest. Photo: David Hamilton

There is no mistaking the dominance of Everest from its summit.

It is not only geographically, but psychologically, and emotionally, a hugely dominant presence.

Standing atop it ones life is now divided into ‘before Everest’ and ‘after Everest,’ when the possibilities of what life offers, having looked down from the top of the world, seem much more expansive and holds much more potential. It is easy to sense the world at your feet.

Lhotse serves as a marker on the descent: starting so far above it, then being at the same height, then, finally, lower than Lhotse. But the yellow of the South Col tents will still be minute, wavering dots through the wind and often building clouds.

Everest, Lhotse
Lhotse, from Everest. The Lhotse couloir leads distinctively and directly down from the summit. Photo: Robert Anderson

Then it is down and down the ropes, the anchors drooping in the snow, old ropes tangled with new. Every crampon point needs its home, every step needs to be perfect, every step and then another step, so simple and requiring so much concentration.

Then the slope levels, climbers skitter across the South Col scree. The tent is close, finally the tent is right there, crampons off, sliding out of the pack.

Securing the ice ax will never feel quite so good.

Everest, South Col, South s
South Col on Everest, looking up towards the Balcony, the snowy bump on the ridge, and the South Summit, highest point on left. Photo: Robert Anderson
A few more Everest stories in my latest book, Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest. And in French, Neuf vies – Expeditions A L’Everest, both available in print and for immediate reading, digitally. Photo: Alexander Hillary

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